Carl Jung, Alchemy and Quantum Physics, with Murray Stein
“Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.”
— Carl Jung
One of the most misunderstood figures in the field of psychology is that of Carl Gustav Jung, iconic Swiss psychiatrist known for his tremendous work on the unconscious mind.
While it had been his specific achievements in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy which really prompted him to break into spotlit circles of study on the unconscious mind (specifically with respect to dreaming and his institutional retort to Sigmund Freud), Jung had another fascination that isn’t often recounted in mainstream academia: hermetical alchemy.
Several of the volumes of his ‘Collected Works’ deal explicitly with alchemical symbolism and how medieval alchemists had already seemed to construct an effective cataloging and understanding of our collective unconscious.
Today, we largely relegate ancient alchemical teachings to the hokum bin as they’ve not only rubbed against the grains of Christianity (often going as far as to directly threaten them), but they’ve also become immeasurably burdensome against the cold instruments of science and the almost-unreasonably high standards of modern materialistic scrutiny.
But what if there’s more to it? What if Jung had been onto something that still holds up as much today as it did in his day, something that may even become quantified by the enigmatic rules of quantum science. Surely, if the projections of medieval alchemists reverberated some measure of truth (at least to Jung), there must be something worth exploring further..
I sought to get some insight from Murray Stein, author of works such as Jung’s Map of the Soul, who has cultivated a rather intimate understanding of Jung’s fascination with medieval alchemy and, frankly put, another way to decode the mysteries of our subconscious mind.
What Jung discovered in the writings of ancient and medieval alchemists was a goldmine of psychological projections. The fantasies of these alchemists revealed the structures and dynamics of the collective unconscious…
… He was mining alchemical texts for the psychological gold hidden in their strange symbols and formulas.
— Murray Stein
Throughout our correspondence, Murray draws on this metaphor several times, of Jung mining, chipping away at the bedrock of alchemical belief in his relentless search for the scintillating revelations that he desired more than anything.
Alchemists didn’t make things easy — for outsiders let alone themselves. Their work had been (and remains) shrouded in mystery, often forcing any followers or pupils to decode understandings as a way of earning them.
The alchemical code, so to phrase it, ran deep within the psyche, often forcing one to experience concepts like transmutation and personal transformation first hand:
The alchemists were not projecting personal unconscious material about their repressed childhood wishes and traumas. They were revealing the most fundamental patterns of psychological transformation, which apply to human beings universally.
— Murray Stein
Like Jung understood, and like Murray detailed, it is the process of interpretation that holds a large part of the answers. This is what further hooked Jung, who became all the more entranced as his own work on the unconscious mind continually validated the projections of alchemical teachings.
While there are many correlations between Jung’s work and the alchemical philosophy, none stand out more than his work on the individuation process, which itself has been redefined over time and cultural transition. Simply put, individuation is the process of synthesizing the conscious and unconscious self — today, we may refer to it as self-actualization, self-realization, various forms of self-awakening or countless other new age ventures designed at ‘unlocking’ or ‘discovering’ the deeper workings of our mind.
Jung found alchemy to function as a symbolic representation of this process, as somewhat of a cipher that he spent many years of his life decoding, finding success and validation in his own direct circles of psychoanalysis.
It was just a matter of interpretation to show their universal applications, and this is what Jung set out to do in his writings. Three volumes of his Collected Works deal specifically with alchemy while many chapters and articles in his other works deal with alchemy as well. Alchemy was Jung’s major preoccupation during the last 30 years of his life.
— Murray Stein
So we have to ask — after such a stellar career that shaped entire fields of study into the mind, why do we mostly ignore the last 30 years of Jung’s work? At a time when Jung was most learned — why do we classify his work relating to alchemy as something too far-fetched for our consideration?
Alchemy is a strange beast — one that remains distasteful to modern applications of understanding and has always drawn eye-rolls and scoffs from both secular and non-secular critics alike.
However, while there won’t be any likely resurgence of the movement itself, the potential for further validation has presented itself in the most unlikely of places: science.
Jung had a great interest in the convergence of depth psychology of the unconscious and the findings of quantum physics…
…So, yes, there might be some possibility of validation in this area… I look for more studies along these lines in the near future. It is a promising field of investigation.
— Murray Stein
Quantum physics has functioned as somewhat of a double-edged sword for the spiritual and non-spiritual alike. It is so enigmatically dumbfounding that it stumps hardcore atheists’ in their tracks and seems to fuel new age spirituality by acting as somewhat of a catalyst for arguments surrounding concepts such as collective consciousness, inter-dimensionality, morphic genesis, and a wide variety of other psychic-spiritual applications.
While there has been no conclusive finding that quantum science directly supports the hypotheses made by those who, say, believe the mind to exist outside of the brain, it fundamentally affirms one notable fact: we know much less than we think we do.
It may thus seem rather hasty or unfair to, at this early stage of our understanding, wholly deny that quantum tunneling or entanglement, that wave functions flowing through a multi-verse or that uncertainty and observation principles are not conducive to some of the claims made by the more mystical voices.
For Jung, the main intersection between his work, alchemy and quantum physics consisted of one simple premise, a premise that has been carried like a torch throughout our own history by the likes of Plato and Immanuel Kant: there exists a world beyond not only our comprehension but also well beyond our perception; while not much is known about the true potentiality of this world, it influences our empirical perceptions, influencing too the physical structure of our reality and, most importantly to Jung, shaping the archetypal concepts of our mind.
The only question, coming back around to Murray’s underscore, is that of our interpretation of what this world means to us. It can mean nothing more than some peculiarities occurring on a subatomic level; it can mean the existence of an eternal afterlife; it can mean the actuality of other dimensions; or it can simply mean better computing potential.
Regardless of what it actually means, it inspires us as the curious species we are to keep chipping away at the unknown structure of the seemingly unknowable reality that we find ourselves a part of.
“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” — Carl Jung